Patriots Need to Be on Upset Alert, As Ray Lewis, Ravens Pose Tough Task in AFC Championship

Ray LewisFOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots will be hosting the AFC championship game for a second straight year. That’s the good news. The bad? They’ll be playing the Ravens.

Ray Lewis‘ retirement tour will be hitting Gillette Stadium next Sunday night for a rematch of last season’s AFC title tilt. That game ended in disappointment for Lewis and his mates, but this time around, they’ll be looking for a different outcome — and it’s far more likely than people in New England may be willing to accept.

The Ravens were able to exact some revenge on national television earlier this season, pulling out a gut-wrenching win on a last-second field goal to dump the Patriots in a Sunday night thriller. The regular season victory was certainly a small prize for Baltimore, but a win next weekend would be the ultimate stroke of redemption.

The Patriots appear to be the most complete team left, but there are some glaring flaws across the roster, and the Ravens have the right talent to exploit them.

The sudden loss of Rob Gronkowski is the most obvious chink in the Patriots’ armor, as it removes one of the best offensive threats in football from Tom Brady‘s arsenal. Without Gronk prowling the middle of the field, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker will be more closely guarded in the passing game, and Stevan Ridley loses one of his best outside blockers.

Hernandez seemed to understand the impact of Gronk’s loss after the game, even referring to him as irreplaceable.

“It’s a big loss and you can’t replace a player like him,” Hernandez said of Gronkowski. “Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling.”

Beyond Gronk, the Patriots’ secondary continues to be an area of weakness — even if far less so than the last time these two teams met back in late September. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard have established themselves as solid options on the corners, and Devin McCourty‘s transition to safety was one of the smoothest midseason position changes in recent memory. Yet, some concerns remain, especially given the Ravens big, physical pass catchers.

Talib and Co. struggled to contain Andre Johnson on Sunday, allowing the 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver to catch eight passes for 95 yards — identical numbers to his first visit in Week 14 — and will face a similar task with Anquan Boldin (6-foot-1, 220 pounds), Torrey Smith (6-foot, 210 pounds) and Jacoby Jones (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) set to invade Gillette next weekend. Smith’s speed gave the Patriots trouble earlier this season, as he caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, but the size and physicality of Boldin and Jones, who combined for seven catches and 154 yards in Week 3, will also offer significant challenges.

Bill Belichick knows exactly how tough the Ravens can be, and he’s expecting them to bring that physical style of play again next Sunday.

“I think the Ravens certainly showed how physically and mentally tough they were to go out there and come from behind and beat Denver in a tough environment,” Belichick said. “That’s what we’re going to prepare for this week — a tough team, mentally and physically, that has a lot of talent, that’s very confident.”

The Ravens are historically a tough team, but since Lewis’ return during the wild card round, they’ve displayed an even more pronounced edge than usual. If exploiting New England’s flaws doesn’t turn the tides in their favor come Sunday, then that edge might just be the thing that separates them.

Brady and the Patriots should enter Sunday’s showdown as the favorites to escape with the AFC crown, but don’t start booking your Super Bowl tickets just yet. These Ravens are for real, and if there’s any team fit to unseat the reigning AFC champs, it’s these guys.

So, if you’re not on upset alert just yet, then let’s just say you’ve now been warned.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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